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Why are eyewitnesses unreliable?

On Behalf of | May 22, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

Eyewitnesses play a huge role in the justice system. People often believe that someone who witnessed an event can provide an accurate and detailed account.

However, many individuals now realize that eyewitnesses can state unreliable information. Several factors affect their memory and perception, making their testimonies less trustworthy.

Memory distortion

Memory is not like a video recorder. It does not capture events exactly as they happen. Instead, memory is reconstructive.

When people recall an event, they piece together bits of information, filling in gaps with what seems most likely. Over time, memories can become distorted. This means that an eyewitness might honestly believe something happened in a certain way, even if it did not.

Influence of stress and trauma

Stress and trauma can greatly affect an eyewitness’s ability to recall events accurately. During a traumatic event, the brain focuses on survival.

This means that a person may not process details about the surroundings or the perpetrator properly. High stress levels can cause the brain to store fragmented and incomplete memories, leading to inaccurate testimonies.

Misinformation effect

The misinformation effect occurs when information right after the event influences a person’s memory of it. For example, if an eyewitness discusses the incident with other witnesses, their memories might blend together.

They might add details from others’ accounts into their own memories, even if those details are incorrect. Media coverage can also contribute to this effect by providing misleading information that becomes mixed with the witness’s original memory.

Influence of leading questions

The way people ask questions can also affect eyewitness testimony. Leading questions suggest a particular answer and can implant false memories.

For instance, if someone asks “What color was the man’s hat?” then they assume the man wore a hat, which might not be true. If an eyewitness faces several leading questions, their answers may not be correct.

Confidence and accuracy

Eyewitnesses who confidently recount what they saw might seem more credible. However, confidence does not always match accuracy. Witnesses can be very confident in their incorrect memories. This false confidence can mislead others into believing that their account is accurate.

Eyewitnesses and their testimonies require caution from anyone after an incident. Understanding these factors is important for evaluating the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies in any criminal defense situation.